As Brexit Rolls on, John Bercow Is under the Spotlight

John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons (Hannah McKay/Reuters)
How the speaker of the House of Commons became the most contentious MP in Parliament

In British politics, the job of the speaker of the House of Commons is to chair debates in Parliament from a position of total impartiality. Throughout the Brexit process, some have claimed (with good reason) that Speaker John Bercow is not merely partial but has aimed to steer Brexit in the direction of the Remain-voting establishment.

On January 9 Bercow caused great controversy when he changed the rules for Parliament’s “meaningful vote.” Proposed by former attorney general Dominic Grieve, the new amendment gave the government just three days – as opposed to the original three weeks – to decide on its next steps should Theresa May’s deal be voted down. (It was voted down.) The effect of this amendment was to take control of the Brexit process from the government and give it back to Parliament. The trouble is that Parliament is too conflicted to get anything done.

Another trouble is that many conservative members of Parliament took Bercow’s actions to be evidence of pro-Labour bias. For instance, one MP asked him why his car has a derogatory anti-Brexit sticker – “b*llocks to Brexit, it’s not a done deal” – but the speaker merely replied that the vehicle belongs to his wife. This might be true, but the Daily Telegraph reported last year that he had told a number of students that he had voted Remain. And this month he also prevented a parliamentary vote on whether to block a second referendum (which keeps this option on the table for anti-Brexit MPs).

Another controversy arose this month when Bercow cited a law dating back to 1604 that would prevent the government from voting a third time on May’s withdrawal deal unless significant changes have been made to it. Significantly, this seemed to please both ardent Brexiteers and those who want to stop Brexit. Both groups are unified in opposition to May’s Brexit-in-name-only deal.

After May had given a speech blaming members of Parliament for a Brexit delay – Britain’s decision deadline is now April 12 rather than March 29 – Bercow told Parliament:

None of you is a traitor. All of you are doing your best. This should not be and I’m sure will not prove to be a matter of any controversy whatsoever. From the chair let me say that I believe passionately in the institution of parliament. In the rights of members of the house. And in their commitment to their duty. And I use the word “duty” in the singular advisedly. The sole duty of every member of Parliament is to do what he or she thinks is right.

What did he mean by this? At face value, Bercow claims that he is not partisan but simply likes speaking truth to power.

Bercow vetoed the suggestion of an address to both houses of Parliament by the president of the United States, Donald Trump, on a state visit. In May 2013, Bercow broke parliamentary precedent in favor of Tory skeptic MPs by allowing them to debate whether or not there should be a referendum to leave the EU. Though this motion didn’t pass, it did set the ball rolling – the ball David Cameron later kicked off the cliff when he announced the EU referendum. In December 2018, Bercow allowed a motion on whether the government was in contempt of Parliament when it refused to make public the official legal advice on its Brexit deal.

But perhaps Bercow just enjoys exercising his own power and being the source of so much controversy. For instance, when Jeremy Corbyn was caught mumbling the words “stupid woman” about Theresa May, Bercow faced accusations of similar comments and bullying. Whether or not this will turn out to be Bercow’s Brexit remains to be seen. But his behavior does raise questions as to why one person, who is supposed to be chairing a debate, has so much say in such a monumental process.